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FCC Granted Broader Authority to Regulate Prisoner Call Costs

by Chuck Sharman

On March 16, 2023, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to begin rule-making to implement the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022. Named after a determined woman who tirelessly campaigned to lower her bill to call her imprisoned grandson – which sometimes exceeded $1 per minute – the law passed Congress in November 2022, expanding the FCC’s regulatory power to cover intrastate calls.

Since 2014, when Congress initially granted the FCC authority to cap interstate prison call costs, prices have decreased to approximately 12-14 cents per minute. However, the limits did not apply to calls made within a state, which account for 80% of the total. The new law closed that loophole, over the predictable objections of companies that have sprung up to provide what they call “inmate calling services” (ICS).

The two largest ICS firms are ViaPath – formerly Global Tel*Link (GTL) – and Aventiv Technologies, which owns both Securus and JPay. Aventiv eventually came out in support of the new law, but Chief Communications and Community Engagement Officer Margita Thompson emphasized the need to protect the firm’s investment in setting up and delivering phone and video calls in high-security prison and jail environments. GTL/ViaPath did not provide a comment except to stress the importance of innovating technology to meets the needs of prisoners and those who imprison them.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel emphasized the need to balance fair pricing for calls without slowing adoption of new technologies like video calling and calls over the internet. Both Aventiv and ViaPath have expanded their efforts in these directions, exploiting prisoners and their families with video calling, tablets, electronic messaging, debit release cards and money transfer platforms, which prisoners’ families use to send money to loved ones and communicate with them.

GTL, for example, requires families and prisoners to give up all rights to photos and videos they exchange over the company’s service and allow the company to use them in any manner seen fit – even selling them to third parties. [See: PLN, May 2023, p.52.] That’s because these non-phone services and products are either not regulated or are less regulated than phone services. The lack of oversight allows companies to find new and creative ways to “double dip” from the meager funds of prisoners and their families – a group already suffering the country’s highest rate of poverty before incarceration.

In exchange for unfettered access to prisoners’ pockets for these services, telecoms have rolled over to allow reduced costs for calls – which some states have made available for no cost at all. Connecticut passed a law making calls free from prison in June 2021. [See: PLN, Aug. 2021, p.56.] SB 972 then took effect in July 2022.

Two months later, in September 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed that state’s Keep Families Connected Act, SB 1008. It took effect on January 1, 2023, making calls free for the state’s more than 100,000 prisoners. Colorado lawmakers sent a similar bill to Gov. Jared Polis (D) for his signature on May 17, 2023.

The impact of a change like this nationwide would be far-reaching for individuals like Paulettra James, who said she spent roughly $500 a month on calls to her husband and son. Both men are imprisoned in Virginia, where a 15-minute in-state call can cost $4.20, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Rosenworcel said that as the FCC begins the rulemaking process, it will require a delicate balance to satisfy competing interests. “The law says every payphone provider should be fairly compensated for each and every call,” she allowed, “but as far as I’m concerned, we’ve got to put a finger on the scale here.”

“Justice requires that people who are incarcerated and their families can speak to one another, can make sure that they stay in contact,” the chairwoman continued. “It plays a really big role in recidivism.”

Additional sources: Connecticut Mirror, Durango Herald, KTVU, Marketplace